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Henry Hudson’s Discoveries and How They Changed The World

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

Henry Hudson discoveries
Henry Hudson discoveries

Henry Hudson's exploration of Manhattan and the Hudson River changed the world, but not quite in the way he had intended. His pursuit of the elusive “Northern Passage” defined his career as a ground-breaking global navigator and took him on four documented voyages to find this theoretical shortcut to Asia over the top of the globe. But it would be Hudson’s unintended discoveries that would, in fact, be the most lasting. And included among these discoveries is the place that we now call “New York”.

This blog explores elements of Henry Hudson's biography, his nebulous career, tragic death and legacy, and examines the important lessons that we continue to learn from this historical anomaly.

Henry Hudson - Discoveries

Henry Hudson’s discoveries are remarkable not just for the accomplishments of a 17th century sailor in the absence of satellite technology or combustion engines, but also for the fact that his “discovery” of what would become the greatest city mankind would ever know, happened completely by accident.

The Hudson River

Henry Hudson’s “discovery” of the river that would come to eternally bear his name, was as inadvertent as his encounters with the Native Americans he met along that haphazard and schizophrenic voyage. And, in truth it would be those very encounters and not any of his intended findings that would lead to the discovery of the Island of Manhattan.

When the Englishman Henry Hudson was hired by the Dutch East India Company in early 1609, the specific purpose of this voyage was to find and successfully navigate the storied “Northern Passage” – a theoretical waterway shortcut to Asia over the top of the globe. The instructions from these staunch Dutch businessmen were as clear as they were concise – Hudson was to try the route “above Nova Zembla (the top of Russia), towards the lands or straits of Anian (Bering Strait) and then to sail at least as far as the sixtieth degree of North latitude, when if the time permitted he was to return from the straits of Anian again to this country” (the Dutch Republic). And it was made clear in these instructions that Hudson was “…to think of discovering no other routes or passages, except the route around by the North and Northeast above Nova Zembla…that if it could not be accomplished at that time, another route would be subject of consideration for another voyage.”

In truth, before Hudson ever left the Amsterdam docks in April of 1609 in the East India Company’s 65-foot yacht called “de Halve Maen” (the Half Moon), he already knew that this specified route was impossible. Because he had already tried it…twice. You see, this 1609 voyage was in fact Hudson’s third attempt at this elusive shortcut to China, and from his hands-on experience and the information from his fellow explorers, including Captain John Smith and Bartholomew Gosnold, was that this passage was nowhere near the top of Russia, but rather on the western half of the planet – over the continent that we now call North America.

So, when Henry Hudson turned the Half Moon southeast and sailed over five thousand miles off his instructed course, he was not only defying his explicitly contracted directions, but he simultaneously set in motion a course of events that would eventually lead to the founding of the place that we call “New York City” today.

In disobeying his employer’s orders to “to think of discovering no other routes or passages, except the route around by the North and Northeast above Nova Zembla” Hudson took the Company ship across the Atlantic Ocean and into a series of encounters with Native Americans. These encounters started as early as Nova Scotia where on the tiny village of La Havre his crew, mostly Dutch sailors hired by the Company in Amsterdam, engaged in trading with the indigenous tribe, which ended tragically with a violent encounter that propelled this rogue voyage off to the rest of its North American exploration.

Upon reaching the eastern seaboard of today’s United States, Hudson’s ship then sailed as far south as Virginia, searching specifically for the inlet to this elusive “Northern Passage”. And after arriving at what Hudson already knew well was part of the English colony, he then turned the Half Moon around and headed back up the coast.

And it was on September 11, 1609 that Henry Hudson’s exploration, now into its fifth month, arrived at the river that would come to eternally bear his name. And when he entered what we now call the Upper Bay of New York, Henry Hudson was convinced that this majestic waterway was, at long last, the storied shortcut to China.

But much to his dismay, this channel did not in fact take him and his 65-foot Dutch yacht over the top of the planet, but rather to an increasingly narrowing section of the river at today’s Troy, New York, where the waterway narrowed into a diminishing stream. Now seven months at sea and with winter setting in, Hudson had little choice but to face the hard fact that this was not in fact the passage to Asia and sailed back across the north Atlantic. But Hudson himself would not return to Amsterdam ever again. He returned to London and entrusted his Dutch crew with the task of returning the Half Moon to the Company. As a result, Hudson was never paid the 800 guilders that the Company had contracted for him to pilot this voyage. Hudson neither returned himself, nor his charts and data to the Company. Because, in truth, Henry Hudson was never really working for the Dutch. Because he had been subversively working for the English the entire time.

Season 1 of Island: Ep2 Orson & Valentine - 1612
Season 1 of Island: Ep2 Orson & Valentine - 1612

The North American Fur Trade

In spite of Henry Hudson’s obsession with this elusive Northern Passage, it would have little to do with the navigational findings of this voyage that drew the subsequent interest of the Dutch. But rather, as a result of the crew’s casual trading with the North American natives, the Amsterdam businessmen were compelled to take a closer look at this land that Hudson’s mate Robert Juet had recorded as “Manna-hata”. You see, by trading inexpensive trifles – such as buttons and spoons or copper kettles -- the sailors received shiny pelts of beaver and otter, far finer than any such product available from the Russians, who had currently had a lock on the world fur market. This sudden opportunity compelled certain Dutch businessmen to quickly forget about the insubordinate Henry Hudson and refocus their efforts on this newfound territory, just above 40 degrees latitude.

But it would not be the Dutch East India Company specifically that would pursue this opportunity but rather a small, close-knit band of Lutheran businessmen living and working in Amsterdam. The group was led by a man named Lambert van Tweenhuysen and in spite of the ostensible “failure” of Hudson to find this shortcut to Asia, it was those shiny fur pelts that Van Tweenhuysen and his team were interested in. And so, they proceeded to invest in exploration back to this very river that Hudson had just returned from, specifically to explore and cultivate this potentially priceless fur trade. And the captain they entrusted with this exploration was the revered Amsterdam sailor by the name of Adriaen Block.

Hudson, however, seeing no value or future in this fur trade and remained thoroughly obsessed with his quest for this Northern Passage and by late 1609, had contracted for yet another voyage to find this elusive passage, contracting with another group of investors, this time back in London, for what would be his fourth and final attempt at this passage. This expedition which would leave England in early 1610, would in fact be Henry Hudson’s final voyage.

Last Voyage Of Henry Hudson
Last Voyage Of Henry Hudson

After nearly a year and a half at sea, his crew mutinied and Hudson and eight other crew members were cast off in a sloop (a large row boat) into the frigid waters of the ocean-like body of water that we call “Hudson Bay”[7] today. These nine were never heard from again and most certainly perished in the desolate and unforgiving waters. Among those nine was Hudson’s own son, thirteen-year old John Hudson.

Henry Hudson’s legacy

While his courage and tenacity cannot be questioned, Henry Hudson is no hero. A rogue explorer who increasingly proved that he was beholden to no man nor nation, Hudson and his crews engaged in multiple avoidable violent encounters with the North American native people. And while we cannot ever know the true circumstances of each of these tragic encounters, what we can do is compare Hudson’s behavior with that of subsequent explorers and settlers. And by comparison, the aforementioned navigator Adriaen Block had no such encounters with the natives of this land. In fact, Block would prove instrumental in forging an increasingly positive diplomacy with the native Algonquins that would prove pivotal to the progress not only of the cultivation of this fur trade, but of colonization here entirely. In many ways Adriaen Block was the great grandfather of American trade[7] and in essence, of the United States of America. Henry Hudson, in spite of his innovations and discoveries, most certainly was not.

Henry Hudson did in fact change the world…albeit inadvertently. His innovations served to not only inspire trade and exploration into the western hemisphere, but in fact served to catalyze the development of what would result in what we call “the United States of America” today.

Embark upon a journey through the extraordinary Henry Hudson and the Discoveries of all those who followed him as we unravel his legacy and the lasting impact of his expeditions. The podcast Island explores this and remarkable components of our lost American history.

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